I’m a month into my sabbatical now and having made sure a took a couple of weeks out to do very little indeed, the urge to read and to blog is only just returning.  Over the past month I seem to have forgotten how to ‘save as draft’ so was rather puzzled to find the first half of this blog already published on the site – so here it is again, this time with the ending!

I’ve been doing a lot of re-connecting and re-balancing of my life, and feel much the better for it.  At the outset of the sabbatical I decided that my two main priorities were rest, and a ‘renovation of the heart’ (as Dallas Willard’s book on Christian character puts it).  With so much time to pray, to be quiet and just to be, I was hopeful of the prospect of some profound and encouraging spiritual experience.  However, particularly during a peaceful four days at Scargill in the Yorkshire Dales, what actually occurred was a quiet, gentle revelation of all sorts of areas in my life which need attention – most of these have come to the surface unbidden and without much very deliberate reflection or intent to find them.  These have come in a variety of forms: long-standing personal fragilities and weak spots, a few specific sins (and yes, I do think that ‘sin’ does still have useful meaning) but also areas where I am lacking in love for people or places.  This was not necessarily what I wanted, but even at the time I knew, was actually what I needed.

There’s nothing new here of course, but I did find myself encouraged how some of that very deep well of Christian wisdom and language about the human heart and its need for renovation, seemed relevant and meaningful.  My personal spiritual heritage is pretty eclectic, but within it I’ve learned a lot from the charismatic movement, and its emphasis on direct, unmediated and sometimes intense experience of God breaking into the world. Perhaps this was what was quietly stoking my hopes for some profound cataphatic encounter with God during my retreat.  I’ve had too much experience of charismatic churches to discount that possibility, but what I learned most at Scargill was to appreciate quite a different insight which is shared by both the evangelical and contemplative traditions in different ways: that so often there is an awful lot of us, and of our present existence, which gets in the way of encountering God, and needs to be named and set aside in order to do so more profoundly.  (I suspect that these things go in seasons, actually – many people experience ‘incendiaries of love’ and ‘clouds of unknowing’ at different times…).  Somehow at Scargill I felt closer to God not through overwhelming spiritual experience but through quietly waiting on God in the stillness, and finding through it layer upon layer of ‘stuff’ brought to the surface which could then be named and placed before God, and only then did I begin to find the most important ‘heart work’ taking place.  Recently a colleague recommended to me for sabbatical reading Ian Adams’ Running over Rocks: Spiritual Practices to Transform Tough Times (Canterbury Press, 2013 – see forthcoming blog entry, hopefully later this week), and Ian’s poem ‘In this Stillness’ (reprinted here in this blog by James Jewell) reflects a very similar experience, which I can very much relate to.  A different image which has also occurred to me several times over the past few weeks is from CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Lucy opens the wardrobe door, climbs in and fumbles about in the darkness, pushing aside row upon row of heavy fur coats, not sensing the end of the wardrobe until suddenly she senses a change in the atmosphere, a lightening and freshening.  I’m not in Narnia yet, but I think at Scargill I may nevertheless have felt a few flakes of snow…